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Can't Touch This: The iPhone

I'd love to tell you I've had my hands on Apple's iPhone but I haven't.
(AP Photo/Apple)
Not that I don't want one, since I am thinking about buying one. No, it's because Apple won't give me one to test out. (Afraid of me, Apple?) I know, I'm in the media, I cover science and technology (and have for nearly 14 years), I work for CBS News, and you'd think it'd be as easy as that. Not so.

Apple is (micro)managing the iPhone's release to the Nth degree, including its sale time at 6 p.m. in each time zone. A handful of personal technology print reviewers or columnists do have one, but evidently plain old TV journalists like me don't fall into that elite category. (Don't worry, I'll be all right.) In any case, even without messing around with one I know what others have said about it, and more importantly what you need to know.

First, let me put on my aluminum hat and step outside Steve Jobs' "Reality Distortion Field" for a second. Ahem. It is still just a fancy smartphone with a touch screen. I know it looks cool and it is. It's hard to put a price on that. It'll play your iTunes music and movies (with a maximum of 8GB of storage), it taps into Google Maps for directions (but doesn't have GPS), and it offers unique features like voicemail that's more like e-mail and the ability to size Web pages and images with your fingers. The touchscreen part is quite eye-catching. No denying that. And turning the iPhone orients the images or video to the corresponding landscape or portrait style. Neato!

But before you rush out and stand in one of the existing lines, ask yourself if you really need one. Well, perhaps as one analyst told me — no one really needs an iPhone. But maybe the better question is can you justify the $500 or $600 price tag, plus the $60 to $100 monthly fees and the two-year contract with exclusive provider AT&T. (Yes, that means you'd need to also break your current wireless deal or have an additional contract.) AT&T wants everyone to know how serious they are about supporting the iPhone and all its needs, but not all observers are convinced it's such a good match. Consider this press release from Consumer Reports:

"In fact, in our latest report, from January of this year, AT&T had 'middling to low'" customer satisfaction, with static and busy circuits pegged as widespread problems (as they've been in our previous surveys). Frequent service-related problems were compounded by the company's relatively low marks for helpfulness in handling customer questions and complaints.

In addition, the iPhone will run on AT&T's "2.5G" EDGE network, rather than one of the faster "3G" networks available from the major carriers, such as Verizon or Sprint's EVDO or even AT&T's own UMTS/HSDPA network (don't worry about the acronyms; the upshot is that EDGE has much lower bandwidth than true 3G networks). Reportedly, AT&T has been working to upgrade the Internet capabilities of some of its towers to ensure higher minimum data speeds than were originally reported."

It's also worth thinking about whether it could replace e-mail on your Blackberry or other smartphone like a Treo. The iPhone has no physical keypad, only a virtual one that pops up on the screen. From the demonstrations I've seen typing with one hand is doable but two hands looks, well, awkward — especially for people with fat thumbs like me. There is a typo-correcting feature but I'm not convinced that would make it anywhere near as efficient as good old thumb-typing with bigger keys. We'll see. Bare minimum, expect a learning curve. Battery life is reportedly better than expected, especially with all those multi-media features crammed in there, but it's still not removable. (Careful not to drop the iPhone, too, with that glass screen.) Oh, by the way it also has a phone.

All that said, Apple hopes to sell millions of iPhones in the next several months, and maybe as many as 100 million by 2010, according to a few analysts. The hype has been building for months, and clearly Apple has a great track record in portable gadgets with its now iconic line of iPods. I do wonder if there'll be a little bit of "Snakes on a Plane" about the iPhone with more people talking about it than actually forking over the cash. Hard to say.

Apple will be dropping by the CBS Early Show tomorrow morning to let us play with them for a bit, and then they'll likely take them all back before we do a live segment on The Early Show on Friday and Saturday morning.

In any event, at some point I may be standing in line with the rest of you.